Data Centers: Three Trends to Watch in 2017


ey factors in selecting the right location for a data center nearly always include sourcing low-cost, reliable energy and determining the availability of adequate infrastructure.  In 2017, we are watching a few emerging trends that could change the landscape of the data center site selection process: technological improvements in the renewable energy sector, the emergence of modular data centers, and developments in water access and consumption within the industry, particularly in the Western United States.

Renewable Energy

Energy has long been known as a major factor in data center development and it’s one of the most important criteria when selecting a site.  Data centers require a great deal of power to run high-tech equipment, and choosing a location with desirable electrical rates becomes an important factor.  Access to more than one power grid can also benefit the site decision.  However, economic and political pressure has caused companies to rethink their strategies for powering a new data center, and technological advancements are creating access to new markets for energy procurement.  Popular renewable energy sources that data centers are turning to include:

  • Solar
  • Natural gas
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Geo-thermal

Large technology companies are deploying renewable energy methods to power their data centers in increasing numbers.

  • March 2013 – Apple announced that all of its data centers were fully powered by renewable energy.
  • Google states on its website that renewable sources power 35% of its operations.
  • November 2016 – Microsoft announced its total investment in wind energy projects in the U.S. will be over 500 megawatts. Currently, 44% of Microsoft cloud data center electricity is derived from renewable energy sources.

The cost of energy, the demand for energy, and the ability to develop renewable sources of energy are important considerations for data center operations.  The trend in developing and utilizing new sources of renewable energy will be an interesting factor to watch.

Modular Data Centers

Modular data centers typically look like repurposed shipping containers.  Armed with high-capacity cooling systems, these transportable units can bring flexibility and efficiency to a new market and can be placed in a desert, the tropics, the artic, or in maritime conditions with no prior preparation.  These fabricated data centers can be placed into service in a fraction of the time of a brick and mortar facility, can be easily shipped, and are perfect for emergency response situations.  They can withstand a variety of weather conditions and are fully intact with cooling, IT, fire protection, and all of the other required elements of a permanent data center.

The use of modular data centers can also be beneficial for rightsizing.  The modular design allows the data center to scale up (or down) based on the total server demand.  The entire operation can be easily modified with the addition or subtraction of units.

The speed of deployment for a modular unit is 4-6 months in comparison to 18-24 months for the development of a brick and mortar facility.  This provides the ability to quickly increase the capacity as needed and avoid over-building as data centers become more energy efficient and require less space.

With the option of modular data center, the site selection and real estate needs may change.  Modular units require less space, and some are even stackable.  However, if the company or provider is in need of quickly scaling up its operational capacity, lack of real estate in an area with high demand may provide some needed flexibility.  The limits to the modular system come in the form of available supporting infrastructure, and place less strain on the company to find an adequate piece of land with a longer lead time.

Water Consumption

 Along with electricity, water is one of the two highest-used resources for a data center.  A traditional data centers uses a considerable amount of water in the cooling of the facility.  In a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, a medium-sized data center (15 megawatt / 130 M gallons) uses about the same amount of water as 100 acres of almond trees (130M), 3 average hospitals (130M), or 2 18-hole golf courses (100M).

Not only do data centers utilize water in their cooling systems, but it takes water to generate electricity.  Data centers were responsible for over 2% of all electricity consumed in the U.S., according to a 2014 report.  California hosts over 800 data centers – more than any other state in the U.S.  In a 2010 USGS report, the second largest portion of daily water withdrawals in California went to power generation.  As California continues to work through a several years drought, water conservation continues to be a major concern.

626 billion liters of water were consumed by data centers in the U.S. in 2014.   According to the 2016 United States Data Center Energy Usage Report, this number is expected to reach 660 billion liters by 2020.  This merits any consideration given to risk mitigation and conservation efforts, as availability will continue to be a growing concern in the site selection process for data centers.

As technology develops and the demand for data increases, the use of data centers will grow at a rapid pace.  Careful examination of the energy and water resources available and mitigation of the risks involved will continue to move up the list of critical factors in making a site selection decision.  Location modeling services will be critical to companies that require a deeper understanding of infrastructure in a region and the availability of economic development incentives can be a valuable tool to offset the costs of any new data center project.  A well-seasoned site selection consultant can provide the analysis, advise on the location and understand the tools available to ensure a company makes a well-informed decision.